Ways of Seeing

Based on the BBC documentary, Berger begins with a retelling of Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and concludes with a brilliant analysis of modern day advertising and its roots in Renaissance-era oil painting. The text is set in Univers bold, an unusual choice that has the effect of slowing down the reading experience; the result is akin to listening to a voiceover. Two of the book’s seven chapters eschew words in favor of images, and while the quality of the printing leaves a lot to be desired, the essays prevail nonetheless.

Reading notes

Advertising for the better

Berger connects the art of the Renaissance—in particular, the imagery of possessions and wealth—to advertising in the modern age:

Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have. It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.

Berger, Ways of Seeing, page 139

Whereas the Renaissance tradition of painting was to prove one’s wealth to current and future viewers, advertising inspires daydreams of the wealth the viewer hopes to one day have. The more deferred the daydream, the more effective the advertising.

Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal. It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more.

Berger, Ways of Seeing, page 131

Which brings to mind Bill McKibben’s argument about more and better:

For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both. That’s why the centuries since Adam Smith have been devoted to the dogged pursuit of maximum economic production. The idea that individuals, pursuing their own individual interests in a market society, make one another richer and the idea that increasing inefficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth has indisputably produced More. It has built the unprecedented prosperity and ease that distinguish the lives of most of the people reading this book. It is no wonder and no accident that they dominate our politics, our outlook, even our personalities.

But the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest. That changes everything. Now, if you’ve got the stone of your own life, or your own society, gripped in your hand, you have to choose between them. It’s More or Better.

McKibben, Deep Economy, page 3

As you “like” it

A brilliant analysis of the evolution of “like” in American English, from the beatnik-hippie usage where “like” conveyed a sense of awe or wonder too big to be put into words, to its now ubiquitous and performative use by teenage girls:

Adeptly employed, “like” acts as a kind of quotation mark in conversations that no longer work discursively, but work more like TV commercials or movie trailers. The word introduces a tiny performance, rather than a description, a “clip” displaying a message in highly condensed gestural and intonational form…as in this girl’s report on an encounter with an ex-friend:

“She was, like, ‘I’m so happy for you…? But she didn’t know that, like, I already knew what she said to him…? So I just played it, like, we are the sync sisters…? Because I wanted her to find out that she, like, had this booger hanging out of her nose the whole time…?”

Each “like” is followed by a fleeting pose, held for just an instant—the whole performance is a string of “takes”—and the ends of key phrases curl up into questions, seeking audience indications that the visuals have been received…the interrogatory incantation takes on a tentative tone, a tone that reaches perpetually for reassurance and permission to go on.

de Zengotita, Mediated, page 84

The need for reassurance reminded me of this, from John Berger:

To be born a woman is to be born, within an allotted and defined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space.…A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.

She has to survey everything she is and ultimately everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial important for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.

Berger, Ways of Seeing, page 46

Taken in that context, the use of “like” among adolescent girls is mere practice—a means to invite criticism from her peers about the identity she is trying on. It is at once a perverse and skilfull means of acquiring power within a society reluctant to give it.